Bass paints a pretty picture for NASCAR

September 11, 2005|By TODD BURLAGE

Sam Bass considers himself the luckiest guy on Earth. If he's not thanking a higher power for his good fortune, he's pinching himself to make sure this fairy tale is actually his reality.

There have only been two life-long passions for Bass: racing; and art. The 43-year-old Virginia native has combined the two to become one of the most recognized, influential and wealthy figures in the automotive art design industry.

His list of clients reads like a Who's Who in NASCAR stock-car racing. Beginning with Bobby Allison in the 1980s, Bass has designed paint schemes for legendary drivers such as Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson . . . just to name a few.

"Since I was a little kid playing with my Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars, this is all I wanted to do," said Bass of his dream job. "I painted those cars, and I did drawings, and I imagined what the cars would look like if I had the chance to design them. Who would have ever guessed you could make a career out of that?"


Bass's love for art made its first appearance when he was a child. His love of racing came later during trips to Southside Speedway in Richmond, Va. It was there he met Allison, who immediately became Bass's favorite driver, and in many respects, his inspiration.

Long before NASCAR's die-cast and collectible industries were even a concept, Bass was painting Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars to match Allison's paint schemes. Who would have believed Bass's canvas would evolve from Matchbox cars to the 850-horsepower machines that have become synonymous with NASCAR and Bass.

"I can't believe how all this has grown," Bass said. "It was something I did out of love. I never would have expected to get paid for any of this. It never really entered my mind."

A decade of tinkering with toy cars became the roots of opportunity in 1981 when Bass, a straight-A student at Virginia Commonwealth University, got the break that would turn his hobby into an empire.

Armed only with a dream and a 30-by-40-inch painting of Allison's Buick Regal, Bass and a buddy drove to an event at Talledega Superspeedway with the hope of having the painting autographed. With no garage pass, Bass said he waited for three hours outside the fence in the scorching heat for a chance to find Allison.

Presumably out of pity, a security guard finally let Bass into the garage area where he later caught up with Allison. His painting was so well received, Allison's entire team signed it and Bass headed back to Virginia with a fistful of requests for more driver paintings.

A business was born, a dream fulfilled.

"That's the day I'll never forget," Bass said. "I just wanted an autograph."

By 1987, Bass's work and reputation had permeated the sport and led to contracts with the Charlotte Motor Speedway (North Carolina) and several high-profile drivers. His designs still grace the cover of the programs for every stock-car race at Charlotte.

But it is Bass's memorable car designs where he made his mark, and money.

From Jeff Gordon's "Rainbow" car, to Sterling Marlin's "Silver Bullet" car, to Terry Labonte's famous Kellogg's cars, Bass has designed them all.

"(Bass) has a great eye for what he does," Labonte said. "There's an important relationship between the look of the car and the driver and he's able to figure that out."

Bass has designed cars with rock group KISS and Spiderman on the hood. He recently even designed a Star Wars series of race cars.

In fact, his specialty paint schemes have fueled an explosion in the die-cast collectible market, and made Bass as much a celebrity as the racers and team owners.

"But you've got to make sure you don't do too many special paint schemes," Bass said, "so they start not being special."

Bass's business outgrew a spare bedroom at his home long ago. He also outgrew an office in the tower at the Charlotte Motor Speedway and another office rented near the speedway.

By the mid 1990s, Bass was designing everything from cars and transporter rigs to helmets and uniforms, and his work was being featured on everything from cereal boxes to tool chests. His paintings and portraits were also being devoured by race fans faster than race tickets.

With demand almost too great to supply, Bass and his wife constructed the 10,000-square-foot building near Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2000 that would eventually house the Sam Bass Gallery.

Today, the building serves as Bass's studio, offices, warehouse and museum for his work. Thousands of race fans visit the facility every year to enjoy his work and buy his collectibles.

From such humble beginnings, it's no wonder Bass begins each day with a pinch and heartfelt thank you.

To borrow a quote from Thomas Jefferson used in the Sam Bass biography,"I'm a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it."

Todd Burlage is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at :

Copyright 2005, Wheelbase Communications

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